With the arcane musical instincts of Captain Beefheart and the dada poetic mindset of Tom Waits, the well-educated Men & Volts (based in the Boston area, although mainstay/lyricist David Greenberger lives in upstate NY) debuted with the challenging and bizarre Rhythms & Blues. Employing horns and difficult tempos, the quartet offers the same four songs — including “Rotten Truth,” a disturbing number superficially about cats — pressed on both sides.
*Hootersville (the cover is a map detail; the asterisk marks a locale) is a very full album bursting with unpredictable music that veers from complex and noisy to charmingly rustic and even pastoral. The lyrics on songs like “Pickwick Papers,” “Big Ball of String” and “No Shower No Shave” similarly traverse a wide range of topics and are often amusingly absurdist. Stimulating and entertaining.
Dropping the brass and revealing a new folk-based orientation, Tramps in Bloom keeps the guitar-built music rudimentary, allowing simply witty paeans to “New York,” “Someone Else’s Money” and “The History of the Moon” to speak for themselves. At times sounding like the Band, elsewhere resembling the Grateful Dead, Men & Volts make no effort to dress up their artless songs, and it’s just as well. Remaining offhandedly unprofessional (not unaccomplished) is no mean feat.
Sounding even more like the Dead, The Mule has cloudy sound (so much for direct mastering to metal), noticeably more ambitious arrangements (although nothing you’d call fancy) and serious, sensitive evocations of loneliness (“Records Go ‘Round”), aging (“You and Me, Pushin’ Up Daisies”) and several intriguing characters (“The Loveless,” “One Holiday Too Many”). Not a spectacular record, but one with old-fashioned attributes that won’t leave you wondering where to park your brain. The Mule was later included on the CD and cassette of the band’s next album.